What is Waterfall Project Management?


by Cloud Coach

Before a project can be accepted, scoped, or scheduled a methodology should be determined. The Project Management Institute defines a methodology as “a system of practices, techniques, procedures, and rules used by those who work in a discipline” and there are different ways of selecting one. Such selection methods might include expert knowledge or guidance from within the organization, acceptance in or certification from a professional association, or government agency requirement/regulation. Once selected, the methodology will influence the project’s processes, inputs/outputs, tools, techniques, and life cycle.

Overview

The most traditional and commonly used is the Waterfall Project Management methodology. It uses a predictive model for project life cycles and relies on discrete and sequential tasks grouped in phases with a completed result delivered at the end of the project. Each phase is terminal and cannot be revisited. The Waterfall methodology is named for the way work flows downward through it’s phases, just as a river flows over rocks.

Characteristics

The Waterfall Project Manager seeks to reduce risk and cost by focusing on the planning process group. By attempting to predict risk and estimate cost, they’re accounting for the known variables that impact project outcomes. Estimates made to the schedule, budget, or resources are not just guesses – they rely on a mixture of environmental factors and organizational assets such as:

  • Government or industry standards
  • Legal and regulatory requirements/constraints
  • Organizational policies, processes, and procedures
  • Project plan templates
  • Project information from previous similar projects:
    • Scope
    • Cost
    • Schedule
    • performance measurement guidelines
  • Historical information and lessons learned

Using these resources, a project plan is designed with detailed requirements outlined and strategic milestones for stakeholder involvement identified. This process works to ensure that the project is executed with minimal deviation from the plan because so many details are accounted for.

Advantages

  • Consistent & predictable structure
  • End goal defined early
  • Repeatable best practices

Disadvantages

  • Focus on adherence, not flexibility
  • Slower to respond to change
  • Quality can suffer

Waterfall project management will work best with teams running repeatable projects with predictable outcomes. Success is templatized and, much like on an assembly line, handoffs are clear and simple with everyone knowing and understanding their role in the overall completion of the project. The rigidity of the process is an asset when risk and issue response strategies can also be templatized.

Conclusions

Using a Waterfall methodology to manage projects is tried and true for a lot of reasons. Its processes are easy to understand and well documented and there are a lot of experts in the field who have run successful projects this way before. There are a wealth of resources to help train and transition teams to a waterfall methodology and purpose-built software, like Cloud Coach, exists to help project teams manage projects to successful completion.